January 14, 2008

File Under: Revolution Eats its Children (Pakistan Edition)

Long article this morning from veteran NYT Pakistan and Afghanistan reporters Carlotta Gall and David Rhode. In addition to a detailed background of the ISI's involvement with Islamist elements in the region (aka, Taliban), they report:

Pakistan’s premier military intelligence agency has lost control of some of the networks of Pakistani militants it has nurtured since the 1980s, and is now suffering the violent blowback of that policy, two former senior intelligence officials and other officials close to the agency say.

As the military has moved against them, the militants have turned on their former handlers, the officials said. Joining with other extremist groups, they have battled Pakistani security forces and helped militants carry out a record number of suicide attacks this year, including some aimed directly at army and intelligence units as well as prominent political figures, possibly even Benazir Bhutto.

Most readers of this blog won't find that admission particularly surprising. But the piece does highlight two key elements:

  1. The process by which militant Islamist groups have come to violently challenge their previous benefactors in the ISI (with the raid on the Red Mosque being a turning point, after which militant groups began targeting ISI personnel explicitly).
  2. The incentives the Musharraf government faces in confronting vs. coddling these groups.

One interesting angle of the latter is the standard tension between law enforcement and intelligence: there appears to be a desire amongst some ISI/Gov officials to maintain contacts with Islamist group leaders with the understanding that they would continue to be loyal agents, even if they occasionally acted out of turn. Then again, they may just want them to screw with India, an element of Pakistani security policy that we all to easily forget.

Ultimately, Gall and Rhode ask a key question: is the ISI a rogue agency or is the Musharraf government insufficiently committed to tackling the Islamist/Taliban problem?

There is little dispute that Pakistan’s crackdown on the militants has been at best uneven, but key sources interviewed by The Times disagreed on why.

Most Western officials in Pakistan say they believe, as Pakistani officials, including President Musharraf, insist, that the agency is well disciplined, like the army, and is in no sense a rogue or out-of-control organization acting contrary to the policies of the leadership.

A senior Western military official in Pakistan said that if the ISI was covertly aiding the Taliban, the decision would come from the top of the government, not the agency. “That’s not an ISI decision,” the official said. “That’s a government-of-Pakistan decision.”

But former Pakistani intelligence officials insisted that Mr. Musharraf had ordered a crackdown on all militants. It was never fully carried out, however, because of opposition within his government and within ISI, they said.

One former senior intelligence official said that some officials in the government and the ISI thought the militants should be held in reserve, as insurance against the day when American and NATO forces abandoned the region and Pakistan might again need them as a lever against India.

“We had a school of thought that favored retention of this capability,” the former senior intelligence official said.

Just some food for thought as we begin working a strategy to arm the tribes in NWFP and FATA. If the ISI can't keep tabs on these groups over the long run, what hope do our hapless intelligence agencies have? If you thought Anbar was fun, you're going to love the Pakistani tribal areas.